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Singer and Actress CoCo Lee’s Death at Age 48 Puts Spotlight on Not-So ‘Happy Hong Kong’

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Fans and fellow entertainers across Asia are in mourning after the tragic death of Hong Kong-born singer-songwriter and actress CoCo Lee on Wednesday at the age of 48.

Lee’s sisters Carol and Nancy shared on Instagram that the artist had been suffering for years from depression and had attempted to take her own life on Sunday. She was taken to Hong Kong’s Queen Mary Hospital, where she was unable to be resuscitated from a coma and passed away on July 5.

Lee—who moved to the U.S. as a child and released 18 albums in Mandarin, Cantonese, and English between 1994 and 2013—was perhaps most well-known for being the first Chinese-American to perform at the Oscars, when in 2001 she sang “A Love Before Time” (from the soundtrack to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song.

Lee was reportedly dealing with a number of health issues in recent years and a strained relationship with her husband, Canadian businessman Bruce Rockowitz. But her sudden passing has also brought attention to the state of mental health in Hong Kong, where deaths by suicide have consistently plagued the community—particularly during the recent COVID-19 pandemic and following the civic unrest and political instability caused by the 2020 implementation of a controversial national security law.

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“Although CoCo sought professional help and did her best to fight depression,” Lee’s sisters wrote in their Instagram post, “sadly that demon inside of her took the better of her.”

After news of Lee’s death, fans took to her Weibo page expressing disbelief. “May there be no depression in heaven,” one user wrote.

Several artists have also paid tribute to the late pop star, from action movie star and fellow Hong Konger Jackie Chan to Singaporean singer JJ Lin, who took to Facebook to say, “I wish life could have been gentler on your soul.”

The poor state of mental health in Hong Kong

Lee’s death, albeit caused by a confluence of factors, comes amid increasing concerns in Hong Kong about mental well-being, challenging the city’s new tourism slogan “Happy Hong Kong.”

The city ranked behind 80 countries in the 2022 U.N. World Happiness Report, dropping from 77th the year before, and a 2019 survey from the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute and non-government organization MindHK found that 61% of the city’s adult population already has “poor mental well-being.”

In May, a University of Hong Kong (HKU) study found that some 16% of Hong Kongers aged 15-24 have experienced at least one of five mental health disorders—depression, anxiety, panic disorder, bipolar disorder, and psychotic disorder—in the past year. Of 3,000 survey respondents, nearly a fifth reported suicidal thoughts in the past 12 months, while 5% and 1.5% had made plans to end their lives or attempted to do so, respectively.

Data from the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention showed a slight uptick in suicide rates (deaths per 100,000) from 2020 and 2021, although generally the suicide rate has hovered above 12 since 2011.

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While social stigma already puts those with mental health issues at a disadvantage, in Hong Kong, COVID-19 and the deteriorating socio-political situation in the city have contributed to the worsening mental health of people, particularly youth, says HKU’s Calvin Cheng, a clinical assistant professor. “Before COVID, already more people [were] seeking for mental health service,” Cheng tells TIME, “because [of] more conflict amongst the citizens or the unhappy news in the TV.”

And while a government-backed advisory panel on mental health has promoted education and awareness in Hong Kong, Eric Chen, who chairs HKU’s psychiatry department, tells TIME that the city still lacks a systemic public health program to combat depression. “The mental health care system in Hong Kong is disproportionately under-resourced relative to the overall affluence of the city,” he says, adding that those who need to seek non-private mental health services have had to wait up to a year.

Heidi Lo, another HKU clinical assistant professor who specializes in adult psychiatry, says Lee’s death should be “an alerting signal” to the public: “Even someone as famous as CoCo Lee, who apparently seems to be successful and, from her photos on social media or on the news, she seems to always smile, like she seems to always be bringing joyful moments to others, but actually, she was facing the problem of depression.”

“I think there is a lot of room for improvement in Hong Kong for making sense of it,” Lo says, “and facing it not like a taboo.”

If you or someone you know may be experiencing a mental-health crisis or contemplating suicide, call or text 988. In emergencies, call 911, or seek care from a local hospital or mental health provider.

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